Coding exchange: Hacker culture between AD and NY

It was a familiar scene to any college student. Old takeout containers, cardboard carcasses of pizza boxes and miniature monuments of stacked Red Bulls ...

Nov 23, 2013

It was a familiar scene to any college student. Old takeout containers, cardboard carcasses of pizza boxes and miniature monuments of stacked Red Bulls sprawled across desks, interrupted by the occasional humming island of an open laptop.
It was around 11 p.m., and while some students flitted back and forth across the room, the most devoted remained hunched over their work, simply shouting their ideas and questions to one another. Green ink splayed across nearby whiteboards in complicated flow charts and graphs. On another board, someone had written the words 'CHOOSE 3 FAV PIZZA,' with a poll of different toppings listed below — a midnight delivery-order turned exercise in democracy.
At NYU Abu Dhabi's Downtown Campus, the year's first Hackathon was under way, and approximately 20 members of the Student Interest Group HackAD had come to share, show off and debate their latest coding projects over the course of one weekend.
HackAD is one out of the few SIGs at NYUAD that does not have a power structure. Projects are adopted based not on who is pushing them and what kind of authority they have, but rather on which proposals interest the group as a whole.
"[HackAD] is mostly a place for hackers to conglomerate, to get resources, to help each other out," said sophomore Lingliang Zhang, a member of the SIG and a participant in this year's Hackathon. "We’re very student-led just because, again, we try not to have too much structure. We try to make it about what we’re trying to do and our common enjoyment in building things."
For HackAD members, competition is ousted in favor of cooperation, and every project must be of some use for the common good.
Overseas at Washington Square, the tenth Cyber Security Awareness Week took place in mid-November. The finalists of six competitions, which were launched early on in the semester, were invited to showcase their work and win prizes. CSAW also hosted a career fair and held its yearly conference on security research.
The first time Julian Cohen, a recent NYU graduate, attended CSAW was in 2008. The event convinced him to attend the Polytechnic Institute of NYU, and he has been involved in the community ever since.
At NYU New York, there are several groups dedicated to hacking. One of these is the Information Systems and Internet Security lab located at NYU Poly in Brooklyn, where students tackle the issue of security. Unlike HackAD, the ISIS lab operates in a very structured manner, with a fully-fleshed curriculum and a hierarchy among students based on skill.
Each week, the lab hosts two events: the Cyber Security Club, in which experts give lectures on security, and Hack Night, a workshop run by students. On Hack Night, a leader guides the others through a focused video and an exercise.
“It’s very hands-on,” explained Cohen. “At the end of the night, everyone has a really good grasp of all of the techniques and processes that we’ve gone over during the night.”
HackAD and the ISIS lab are NYU’s very own microcosms of a movement recently coined as hacker culture. Rocketing in growth since the ‘60s and ‘70s, the hacker world is made up of programmers and computer science engineers, many of whom are based in California or New York, working to build and create technology for the common good.
The movement has been frequently misrepresented by the media, with its depictions of hackers as people who break into bank systems, steal credit card information and huddle over computer screens that churn with unintelligible green code.
“[For those activities] we like to use the word cracking, because hacking is constructive and building, and cracking is breaking things down,” explained Zhang.  
At the ISIS lab, however, the students avoid these words entirely.
“We’re doing [this work] on such an involved level, just calling it one of these words … is kind of insulting,” said Cohen.
According to Zhang, many practices of hacker culture have roots at MIT, where hackers used to write programs on punch cards and tuck them into drawers of filed code, and high standards for quality of work were expected. Now, these same MIT students are well-known and influential in the field to the point of being legends — hacker-forefathers.
In his article, “How To Become A Hacker,” Eric Steven Raymond, a leading but controversial persona in the hacker world, alluded to the importance of sharing in hacker culture.
“You gain status and reputation,” he wrote. “Specifically, by giving away your time, your creativity, and the results of your skill.”
This lean toward freedom is exemplified by how many hackers avoid secrecy, preferring to balloon open information instead of hiding it from competitors and outside eyes. The logic follows that more eyes on a project means more hackers fixing its errors.
This has led to open-sourcing, which — according to many hackers — leads to more efficiency.
"Open source ... means all the code you’ve written is completely [available] to everyone," said Zhang. "And you also give everyone the opportunity to take it, modify it, use it how they want. And the condition attached to this is that if you modify it, you have to share back your changes."
As counterintuitive as it may be to release all of one’s work to the public and, consequently, one’s competitors, many big names in the tech industry like Google Chrome have begun to use open-source.
"I can, for example, take the whole code that Google’s been developing for the last, I don’t know how many years, and make my own browser," said Zhang. "Even companies that used to be startups like Facebook, they all turned out to be big successes and a lot of what they build is open-source."
Zhang is a Computer Science major. He helped found HackAD, spends a lot of his free time coding and often says things like, "I just invented a new algorithm," the same way some people say, "I just found ten dirhams on the street." He is very excited about open sourcing, and sees it as an equalizing ground. Now, said Zhang, a twelve-year-old can touch and work on the same piece of code as Google.
Zhang admits, however, that there can be setbacks to open sourcing.
"Sometimes [there are] grey areas," he said. He mentioned one example in which the Obama campaign's tech team used open-source code to make software for the campaign. When elections were over, the programmers felt a moral obligation to release parts of the code to the public, but the administration refused, worried that it would give republicans an advantage.
It’s difficult to allow for open sourcing in environments that have traditionally been private, Zhang said.
However, the process of researching at NYU provides a safe space to experiment with open source and security, leaving politics aside.
“We’re not taking sides,” explained Cohen. “What we’re doing is … purely an academic exercise.”
Although they do not align with any political ideology, hackers in general tend to be liberal and react to certain social issues in similar ways. The culture can be exclusive, especially given that fluency in English is a requirement to code. However, diversity still remains in hacker culture in its ideas and in its problem-solving.
"We have this term called ‘The Right Way,’ which is like how should I implement this technology?" said Zhang. "And the answer is always do it in ‘The Right Way.’ There’s a lot of diversity in people’s ideas on how things should be done, and that’s really cool because you get this huge range of technologies.
Hacker culture even has its own trends.
"One part of the culture is we treat pieces of code kind of like how other people would treat fashion or bands. We’d say like, I use this one, I’m a big fan of [this one]," said Zhang. "We kind of enjoy flaunting what software we use because it shows your style and its giving your support to [it]."
Where Python is Prada and Ruby is Gucci, there are incessant debates on the technical details of what tools and resources to use among hackers.
"There’s a term in hackerdom called religious wars, and it’s like these eternal wars on what’s better and it never ends," said Zhang. "Should you use vim or emacs, or should you use big endian or little endian. These [are] technical details that people will argue about forever."
While HackAD and the ISIS labs are active in their respective campuses, a connection across NYU’s global network has yet to come to life. Back on the square, there is also potential to bridge the campuses. Hack Nights, for example, are broadcasted live.
“We’re definitely interested in sharing what we have and helping others learn,” explained Cohen. “That’s a big part of the lab. Sometimes it’s hard with time zone differences and language barriers, but … we’re definitely interested in collaborating.”
Zhang was optimistic about this prospect. “It would be nice. There are inklings of it starting to happen.”
Zoe Hu is features editor. Costanza Maio is a staff writer. Email them at
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